Monday, March 31, 2014

Lost in translation

Tall herb flora in Kyrgyzstan on a wet scree slope. Aconitum leuostomum mostly, to 2m tall.

I just had the following letter from a student in canton Zürich, Switzerland. It raises some interesting topics, not least the very different approaches to studying plant management in German-speaking and English-speaking countries. I'm answering her through a blog posting, so more of you can see it.

I'm currently studying at the ZHAW in Wädenswil... The topic of my term paper is the "stability" (Standfestigkeit) of "large herbaceous perennials" (Grosstauden). I don't know the proper technical terms in english. For this reason I hardly found English literature. Now my question to you: Could you translate following words in technical language? "Standfestigkeit", "Grossstaude" and "Staudenhecke". Maybe you even know some links or papers about these topics?

The embarrassing thing is that, unlike in German-speaking countries, we do very little, indeed almost no formal research into ornamental plant design or management. James Hitchmough and colleagues at the University of Sheffield do some fantastic work on establishing perennial combinations and a little on management, but the field is so vast, and no-one else does anything. Collecting data and being precise are a bit too 'Germanic' for most British gardeners. Yes, its frustrating. We are trying to change things, but it is slow.

Standfestigkeit translates as 'stability' or the more colloquial term we gardeners would use would be 'sturdiness' – i.e. does it fall over or not? Especially after flowering.

Grossstauden as 'tall perennials'. And yes, tall perennials do tend to fall over in gardens. Let's unpack this a bit more and look at the ecological and regional origin of perennials which grow tall.

1) 'Tall herb flora' has a very special meaning to an ecologist; in Britain we have very little of it, and the expression has little meaning, so I sometimes find myself using the German Hochstauden to English-speaking audience, to stress that this means something special. This may sound pretentious but there is a long tradition of English-speaking intellectuals using German words, which can often say in a word what English needs a sentence for (we are always talking about Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude etc). Hochstauden or tall-herb flora means those incredible places you get in hilly or mountain areas where very mineral rich and oxygenated water flows constantly underground to nourish the growth of perennials to massive sizes. My best experience of these was in Kyrgyzstan a few years ago, but the Alps can be good too. Huge perennials, many of which we grow as garden plants: many Aconitum, Campanula lactiflora, Persicaria amplexicaulis, and yes, in nature they are very untidy and often fail to show much Standfestigkeit.

2) Prairie plants, from the tallgrass prairie – high rainfall, fertile soils, high summer temperatures, grow tall too, but tend not to fall over (ok. my prairie experience is limited but I have never seen a flopped-over prairie). Grasses play a role and may help support the forbs, but also I suspect that competition ensures that growth is kept within limits.

3) Perennial forbs from places with monsoon climates, so a bit like the prairie. I'm thinking of Russian far-east and Hokkaido, Japan. Massive growth to compete in a wet resource rich environment.
Filipendula camtschatica and a Eupatorium in Hokkaido, Japan.

These plants in cultivation tend to be grown with wide spacing compared to nature, and so there is little competition and so they overfeed (like getting fat really) get top heavy and fall over. Simple as that. Grow them at closer densities and they are less likely to get so large and more likely to show good Standfestigkeit.

Staudenhecke – translates as 'perennial hedge', which is something they have been experimenting with at ZHAW. Basically, plant a line of tall self-supporting perennials in a narrow band and you have a seasonal hedge feature. Nice idea. Have never seen anyone do it here, apart from the one I did here three years ago, and which I cannot find a photograph of which show it clearly :( Basically I have a line of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' and some forbs acting as a screen half way down the garden. I'm not entirely happy yet with the companion forbs: Veronicastrum virginicum/sibiricum is ok Vernonia would be if the ****ing slugs hadn't eaten them all last year, Eupatorium maculatum/fistulosum etc. are very good, I think Helianthus 'Sheila's Sunshine' would be good too. Anything bolt upright.

Perennial hedge at ZHAW, Switzerland.

Which brings me on to my final point, which I have never seen described anywhere, if you dig up any of the perennials I have just described, you will find something very interesting. The helianthus – you just dig up, comes up easily, like an aster or solidago. The eupatorium and vernonia involve hacking your way through a massive radial root system - which takes a few years to build up, and is clearly a solution to how to stop 3m high plants from falling over. It is quite unlike anything you will find in any other perennial. Impressive engineering. So perfect for the Staudenhecke which I must really try to complete this year.

In researching the use of the German terms which Anna asks about, I came across the most fabulous looking Staudengarten (perennial garden) near Rostock. Can't wait to get there.

Anna – There is one book you might find useful: Tall Perennials, Turner, R. Timber Press, 2009.

one book I really do recommend, which is about plant ecology, but highly relevant to garden and landscape planting design is:
J. Philip Grime, 2001. Plant Strategies, Vegetation Processes, and Ecosystem Properties. Wiley.


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